What does God want law to do?: Knowing our place in the story

David McIlroy - Colour

What does God want law to do?

Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, Dundee, 30th June 2012

I'm a barrister and yesterday I travelled by train into Scotland with Mark Barrell, who is a solicitor.  In England we tell a joke about a solicitor, a barrister and a Parliamentary draughtsman who were making just such a journey.  It is said that when they crossed the border, they saw a highland cow.  The solicitor turned to the other two and said: "There's a Scottish cow and it's brown.  We can conclude from this that all Scottish cows are brown."  Immediately the barrister leapt in to correct him: "No, he said, all that we can conclude is that this Scottish cow is brown."  "That's not right, either", said the Parliamentary draughtsman, "All that we know is that this side of this Scottish cow is brown."  The story illustrates two things: one is that down South, barristers are more pedantic than solicitors and Parliamentary draughtsmen are even more pedantic than barristers.  But it also illustrates that people from England have this vague sense that things are different north of the border, but we are not exactly sure by quite how much.

1.      The Bible's big story

The Bible tells a big story about the history of this world.  It's a story of how the world was created good, about how the world has fallen, how God came into the world in the person of Christ in order to redeem the world, and how God will one day restore this world and bring His plans of redemption to completion. 

In order to understand what God wants law to do we need to know where law fits into that story.

2.      Law in Creation

When God made human beings God made human beings for a purpose and God gave human beings rules and responsibilities.  In Genesis 1:28 God gave human beings the commands to "Be fruitful and increase in number" and to "Fill the earth and subdue it" and in Genesis 2:16-17 Adam was given a specific command by God, a specific prohibition against eating from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.  The existence of these commands tells us that there was law right from the beginning: there was law in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. 

It is important for us to get hold of this idea.  You've probably come across the idea that law is necessary to prevent chaos from breaking out again.  However, the fact that there was law in the Garden of Eden is meant to inform us that law can not only be used to prevent chaos but can also be a positive force for good.  Things like the rules on weights and measures, on how to buy and sell houses, about which side of the road you drive etc., all these things enable human beings to live better lives because there is a legal framework in place.  Law can open up opportunities for human flourishing.

3.      Law and the Fall

Although it is not the whole purpose of law in this world, an important feature of the legal system today is to deal with the consequences of evil in our society.  You don't need much involvement with the legal system to confirm that there is something wrong with the human heart.  As G.K. Chesterton put it: "original sin … is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved" (Orthodoxy, p.10). 

In fact, there are two realities which we can see when we look at our world: one is the reality of the world as God's good creation, the other is the reality of the world as fallen, full of sin and violence.  At its best, law can be used to promote those things which are good for societies and to combat those things which are destructive of societies.

4.      Providence

How does God act in this world which remains His good creation but which has been so scarred by humanity's Fall?  The promise of the rainbow is a promise that God will not destroy the human race utterly (Genesis 9:16).  The rainbow is the visible sign that God is still at work in this world, protecting it against the worst effects of evil and preserving conditions in which people can live their lives and can respond in love and faith to God.

There are three 'P's we need to think about at the same time when we think of what God is still doing in the world: providence, preservation and preparation.  God is not only at work within creation preserving it from collapsing back into chaos but also at work within creation directing it towards the ends and purposes which God has planned for it.  We need to think about the word "providence" as encapsulating the ideas of both "preservation" and "preparation". 

Another way of thinking about providence is in terms of common grace.  Common grace is the way in which God acts, even on those who are not Christians, so that altogether they are fallen and fall short of the glory of God, they are not as bad as they might be.  God's common grace is God's ongoing work in the world both preserving it against the destructive effects of sin and also preparing it to receive the good news about Jesus Christ.  Tim Keller stresses that the idea of common grace is vitally important to understanding how to relate to the world.  If we don't recognise the importance of common grace then either we end up with forming the view that only Christians are right about anything, and so we stop listening to others and start imposing our will by force; or we conclude that the world is beyond help and we retreat into a holy huddle and stop trying to change it.

Instead, we need to build on the idea of common grace in order to understand three things: (1) that human institutions are not self-sustaining; (2) that God is actively at work preserving human societies against the worst effects of sin and creating opportunities for the gospel; and (3) that God wants to partner with Christians in that work.

5.      The Limits of Law in Achieving Justice

If the ideas of providence and of common grace tell us what God can do through human laws, the rest of the Old Testament shows us what laws, even godly or God-given ones, cannot do.  So far, we have only made it to Genesis chapter 9.  I want to pick up the pace now.  The first five books of the Bible are called 'The Law'.  Much of their content consists in setting out 613 laws which were meant to govern important aspects of Law in ancient Israel.  The rest of their content consists of stories.  We are meant to read the laws and the stories together.  The stories help us to interpret the laws, and the laws help us to interpret the stories. 

What we have in the first five books of the Bible is an ideal legal system, a paradigm of what a God-given legal system would look like for a bronze age, agricultural community.  The remainder of the Old Testament is a depressing description of how things worked out in fact.  The biblical narrative from Joshua to 2 Kings tells a story about the repetitive rejection by God's people of His lordship over them and of the inveteracy of human sinfulness.  The problem is exemplified in the golden calf incident referred to in Deuteronomy 9, which makes clear that the giving of the law does not solve the problem of sin.

The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy describe an exemplary legal system, in which judges were to give just judgements and priests were to pray for mercy and carry out sacrifices so that the people's sin could be forgiven.  But, once you have got past the conquests in the book of Joshua, the very next book, the book of Judges, describes how everything fell to pieces.  Despite the fact that Israel had a God-given legal system; despite the fact that that they were God's chosen people, Israel did not have a just society.  In fact, the Old Testament book of Judges contains an almost unreadable account of the depravity and violence which can occur when there is no effective authority and everyone is free to do as he sees fit (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).  It does not get better for very long once the people chose a king.  Soon the king and the people are at it again.  By the time you get through the books of the prophets to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the conclusion is clear.  Law on its own does not work.  What is required instead is a radical change of heart.  What is needed is the Holy Spirit who can work from inside human beings to cause them to follow God and to obey God (Ezekiel 36:27).

This message contained in the Old Testament ought to prevent us from being too optimistic about what can be achieved through law.  Law is not the means by which God has chosen to redeem the world.  Furthermore, Jeremiah and Ezekiel teach us that real change only comes when the Holy Spirit is at work. 

6.      Redemption

So far we have discovered that law is something which was originally part of a good creation, that human laws need to address the consequences of the Fall, that human laws can be used by God in God's purposes of preserving humanity against the worst effects of the Fall and in preparing a space for the gospel.  We have seen what laws can do and we have seen what laws cannot do: laws cannot change human hearts.  I want to look now at the difference Christ's work of redemption makes to God's purposes for human laws.  The difference is this: Even though laws are used by God's providence and are not themselves means of redemption, the content of good laws should be shaped by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

6.1  God has acted decisively in Christ, who alone lived a law fully in accordance with God's laws and who died on the cross to exhaust the curse which fell on all who were disobedient to God's laws

What God has done for us in Christ can be seen in terms of Christ's obedient life, Christ's sacrificial death, Christ's glorious resurrection and coronation, and Christ's gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church.

6.1.1.                  The obedient life of Christ

The New Testament compares Jesus Christ a number of figures from the Old Testament including Adam and Moses.  Whereas Adam failed the test of obedience, Hebrews 5:9 tells us that Christ was made perfect in obedience through suffering.  Fallen human nature was assumed by Jesus Christ and brought back into obedience to God.  A human will was fully aligned with the will of God, a man walked in relationship with God without stumbling or falling. 

John 1:17 tells us that whereas the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  As we have already seen, one of the key messages of the Old Testament is the inability of laws, even the best of laws, to make a society just and to cause people to live lives which are pleasing to God.  Attempts to legislate biblical law primarily on the basis that this will be pleasing to God fail to appreciate that such an enterprise is inherently flawed and will turn people into Pharisees and possibly harden them against the gospel.  True Christian obedience can only ever be voluntary.

6.1.2.                  The sacrificial death of Christ

In Genesis 2:17, God cursed Adam and Eve.  God imposed the penalty of death on all humankind.   Deuteronomy 21:23 states that those who should be put to death for breaking the Law of Moses and who are hanged on a tree are under God's curse.

Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross exhausts both of those curses.  If those who are hanged on a tree are cursed, and yet Jesus was raised from the dead by God the Father, then that curse has been broken.  If all human beings are doomed to die, and yet Jesus was raised again from the dead, then the curse of death is not the last word.  'Christ, by fulfilling the Law in his passion, undergoes the fullness of the covenantal curses and thus pays the entire penalty of sin' (Levering, Christ's Fulfillment, p.52).  Good laws are ones which recognise the lengths which God went to in order to come and redeem sinners, law-breakers like you and me, and takes that into account in the penalties it imposes when the law is broken. 

6.1.3.                  The resurrection and coronation of Christ

Jesus didn't just die on the cross and rise again, He ascended into heaven.  The Ascension of Christ is the ultimate political demonstration of God the Father's rule.  Through the raising of Christ, God demonstrates His power, His vindication of Christ, the One in whom humanity is truly represented.  Because Christ is the "Lord of Lords" and the "King of Kings", human rulers are not, even if they are emperors of the Roman Empire.  Because Christ is all-powerful and because He is the true representative, the only justification for human political authority in the time before Christ's return, is the need for someone to be acting to deal with wrong.  Oliver O'Donovan (who has been lecturing at Edinburgh University since 2006) tells us that political authority in the age after the ascension of Christ has one function which justifies its existence: that of doing judgment.  However, when Jesus was asked by Pilate whether He was king of the Jews, He declared (John 18:36) "My kingdom is not of this world."  The kingdom of God will only be fully realised in heaven, among the society of believers there. 

6.2  The Holy Spirit is the agent who transforms us, from the inside out, into Christ-likeness

In some mysterious way, the release of the Holy Spirit on the Church at Pentecost is linked to the resurrection and ascension of Christ.  Once Christ returned to the Father, the fullness of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church.  As Romans 8:3-4 puts it: "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit."  We follow Christ not primarily by obeying the law of Moses, not even primarily by following the moral law  revealed in Scripture, but by co-operating with the Holy Spirit. 

Gordon Fee argues that "deliverance from the tyranny of sin, effected through the atoning work of Christ," is experienced as an "ongoing reality" through "the work of the indwelling, life-giving Spirit".  The purpose of the Mosaic Law is now fulfilled by the Spirit.  What pleases God is a Spirit-filled Christian living in joyful, obedient response to God's love. Truly 'Christian morality' must be heartfelt obedience to God's good moral laws and to the Holy Spirit's moral guidance.  It is not only immoral and or impractical for the Church to enforce its vision of morality; it is impossible.  The most that can be achieved is a form of legalism which Jesus denounced as not pleasing to God (Matt. 23:27).

This means that the justice which can be done in the law-courts can only ever be a pale reflection of that inside-out justice which delights God's heart.  It means that true redemption and transformation lie beyond the power of any human judge.

7.      The Last Judgment

And so we come to the end of the Bible's big story about law: to the Last Judgment.

7.1              The Last Judgment tells us that we will be accountable:

God's justice holds human beings accountable for their actions.  There is going to be a day of reckoning.  We instinctively respond to the idea of 'just deserts', to rewards that are merited and punishments that are warranted.  The Bible teaches that there will be a day when God judges on this basis (Matthew 16:27; 25:31-46; Romans 14:10-12; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

In the fourth century after Christ, Augustine of Hippo wrote a letter to the Christian judge Apringius (Letter 134).  In that letter, he said: 'I have no doubt that when you exercise the power that God has given you, a human being, over other human beings, you reflect upon the divine judgement, when judges too will stand to give an account of their own judgements.'

All police officers, advocates, solicitors, procurators fiscal, and any other lawyers, all sheriffs,  judges and politicians will one day answer to God Himself for how they have used their power.

7.2              The Last Judgment gives us hope when the system fails:

The Bible teaches us not only to hope and work for justice through law; it also gives us strength to cope when law does not deliver justice.  The Bible is thoroughly realistic about the extent of injustice.  Ecclesiastes 3:16 says: "I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgement - wickedness was there, in the place of justice - wickedness was there."

The cross reminds us that God himself knows all about the depths of human injustice: He has experienced the worst of it for Himself.  Jesus' promise to the murderer on the cross "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43) is a powerful demonstration of the fact that all human verdicts are only provisional.  The promise of the Last Judgment is that God will one day do something to address that fact.  One day the perfect judge who has seen everything right all the wrongs which earthly legal and criminal justice systems have not been able to deal with.

8.      So, what does God want law to do?

I've spent quite a lot of time this morning at the Bible's big story, we've seen that law was part of creation, that human law needs to address the consequences of the Fall, that human law can be used by God for God's purposes of preserving the world against the worst effects of Sin and preparing for the gospel.  We've also seen that law cannot redeem people but that it should be shaped by what God has done through Jesus Christ and in giving the Holy Spirit.  We've also thought about how human law is practised against the backdrop of the Last Judgment, when God will deliver His final verdict on each one of us.  So, given that big story, what does God want law to do?

8.1  Human law is given to commend the good and to punish evil

Human laws are God's appointed means for restraining human wickedness and for bringing about order in human societies.  Those who govern have a mandate from God to do so, because God has purposes which God wants to achieve through human rulers.  The two purposes God wants to use human rulers to achieve are the preservation of order and the promotion of justice.

Although he was well aware of the importance of justice, William Temple wrote: "Now the most fundamental requirement of any political and economic system is not that it shall express love, thought that is desirable, nor that it shall express justice, though that is the first ethical demand to be made upon it, but that it shall supply some reasonable measure of security against murder, robbery and starvation." (Christianity and Social Order, p.61).

You cannot build a just social order unless you have a social order to begin with.  Order and justice are sometimes described like a two storey house: order is the lower storey and justice is the upper storey.  However, the relationship between order and justice is not so straightforward.  Injustice creates insecurity. And ultimately it creates insecurity not only for the oppressed but also for their oppressors.   Those who are oppressed and alienated by the system, who feel that they have no stake in it, who are left with nothing to lose; they are the ones amongst whom the terrorists, the rebels and the suicide bombers will arise.  As Oliver O'Donovan warns: "[a]ny quest for peace that is not linked to a quest for justice will be illusory" (Peace and Certainty, p.116).

Human rulers have the responsibility to do and to encourage good/right and to punish and discourage wrong.  If they are doing that, they are acting as God's servants and fulfilling the purpose for which they have been instituted.  When Old Testament leaders were appointed, they were commissioned to maintain justice (1 Kings 10:9, 2 Chronicles 9:8, Ezra 7:25).  If human rulers are not doing that, they are acting in disobedience and rebellion to God.

The authority of earthly rulers is not an absolute authority but an authority given, so according to Romans 13 v.4b to the rulers as God's servants. Human rulers act as God's agents to do justice, maintain order, and secure peace. '[Human law] is subordinately and fallibly instituted to uphold what is good.' (Alan Storkey, Jesus and Politics, p.180).  I use the word "agent" quite deliberately because, as you will know or will learn shortly, agents can either discharge their appointed tasks faithfully or can depart from the authority which has been given to them and pursue their own purposes.

Good laws preserve order and which promote justice by punishing evil and commending good.  This means that good laws are not simply neutral between different peoples' ideas of what will be good for them; good laws distinguish between good and evil in accordance with God-given criteria.

8.2  Good and evil are to be discerned by reference to the creation order and to what we know from the Bible about what God wants

No law is value-free.  Christians believe that Christian values lead to a good life and that some Christian values will bring benefit to the lives of whoever abides by them, whether a Christian or not.  Quoting D. James Kennedy who said "Morality is the only thing you can legislate", George Grant argues that "legislation is the codification in law of some particular moral concern" (The Micah Mandate, p.96).  However, even in the Middle Ages, there was a clear difference between sin and crime, between those things that needed only to be confessed to a priest, and those which needed to be the subject of a trial.

Human law has to deal with human sinfulness and imperfection.  It must do so in a way which leads neither to anarchy nor to oppression.  Human law also has to be administered in imperfect circumstances, it is limited by lack of resources, lack of foresight and insight, and the fact it cannot change hearts but can only constrain external obedience.

God's justice is eternal; human justice is temporary, dealing with temporal things.  Government is not immediately concerned with spiritual questions but rather with what Aquinas called "the common good in worldly possessions" (de bono publico in bonis temporalibus).  Political authority is temporal power concerned with temporal goods.

How do we discern what is right and what is wrong?  Right and wrong can be discovered in two ways.  On the one hand, there is what can be observed from nature; on the other hand, there is what is what God has revealed in Scripture.  In order to identify good laws we need to look both to natural law and to the Bible.  In order to create a viable, coherent set of propositions from natural law, it is necessary to interpret nature in the light of Scripture.  On the other hand, if Christianity is not to be brought into disrepute, Christians must be able to demonstrate the social utility of the laws they are proposing; in other words it would be wrong to impose on society a law whose benefit could not be argued from nature.

J.W. Montgomery has suggested that "Believers should not endeavour to legislate even genuine scriptural moral teachings where the value of the given teaching will only be recognized by those who have already accepted Christ as Lord and the Bible as the Word of God. ... To legislate such biblical teachings is to confuse law and gospel by forcing non-Christians to practice Christianity apart from personal acceptance of it.

Believers should strive to legislate all those socially valuable moral teachings of Scripture whose value can be meaningfully argued in a pluralistic society ... offer[ing] arguments on scientific, social, and ethical grounds potentially meaningful to the non-Christian." ("The Limits of Christian Influence"). 

As Stephen is going to be explaining in our next session, natural law arguments are a key apologetic strategy, forcing Christians to explain to non-Christians why particular legal reforms would not only be honouring to God, and are not simply biblically mandated, but would be good for people to live by, whether they have yet come to acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour or not.

However, even though there is an objective moral order to God's world, because we are finite creatures we do not have clear, unimpeded and infallible knowledge of it.  Some degree of caution is therefore appropriate before forcing our own judgments about what is right in terms of morality upon others. 

The laws we seek to promote as Christians should be capable of explanation to the rest of society in terms that will show their benefit to all, whether or not they are Christians.  They should not be, as the Puritan prohibition on dancing and Christmas and the American prohibition on alcohol, akin to the burdens placed by Pharisees on people's shoulders which Jesus so roundly condemned (Matthew 23:1-3).

Above all, it must be our concern that the laws we promote will favour the spread of the gospel.  If we have to choose between legislating Christian values and ensuring that people are prepared to listen to the gospel, then it is the Gospel which must be given primacy over the Law.   Archbishop William Temple, whose book Christianity and Social Order, was so influential in establishing the theological case for the Welfare State, wrote in it: "If we have to choose between making men Christian and making the social order more Christian, we must choose the former." (Christianity and Social Order, p.114).

8.3  Human law is not given to make human beings perfect and does not have to solve all problems now

As we have seen, law has an important role to play in God's providential ordering of our fallen world.  However, as Julian Rivers explains: "The idea that law is limited lies at the heart of the Christian gospel: we are saved by grace, not by law, and if adherence to the moral law is powerless to restore us to relationship with God, still less is any possible civil law." ('Liberal Constitutionalism and Christian Political Thought', p.11).  The role of human law in combating sin is therefore limited, and because of the tendency for power to be abused by the sinful people who hold it, the extent of human law itself needs to be controlled. The Rule of Law, the Limited State and the Separation of Powers, are all instruments apt to mitigate the effects of the Fall and to reduce the scope of influence for the adage "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

We should neither expect too much nor demand too little from our laws.  There are two temptations which we must resist: the temptation to attempt to bring about heaven on earth and the temptation to despair.

8.3.1.                  The Temptation to Attempt to Bring About Heaven on Earth

Colin Gunton warns that "We are part of a culture that seeks to bring in the Kingdom, or some kind of kingdom, by human activity, and it is a recurring feature of the over-realized secular eschatology of the day that we are so prone to seek to solve that which is beyond immediate solution.  That is one clue indeed to our frantic modern restlessness and to the ineffective attempts of modern governments of all stamps to bring in the Kingdom by legislation.  In all life, … eschatological reserve should be the hallmark of thought and action: a recollection of the limits of our possibilities, given at once both human finitude and the sin that continues to hold back …" (Gunton, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, p.217). 

Our God is not impatient; He is patient.  The writer of 2 Peter 3:9 explains the delay in the arrival of the Second Coming of Christ in the following terms: "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." The fact that God has withheld the execution of the final judgment means that in the Christian era it is the necessity for human judgment, rather than the grounds for withholding it, which needs accounting for.  O'Donovan's explanation is that political/ legal acts of judgment are required when, if such a judgment were not to be made (serious) wrong would be done.

8.3.2.                  The Temptation to Despair

The alternative temptation is that of assuming that nothing can be done to make things any better.  Resignation about the inevitable sinfulness of human nature leaves human laws unaffected by the good news about Jesus Christ and effectively reduces Christianity to a spiritual doctrine with no practical effect.  This is an impoverished gospel which becomes incredible simply because it makes no demonstrable difference to people's lives.

1 Timothy 2:1-4 offers a very different perspective.  Paul tells Timothy in that letter to make "requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving … for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."  There we are told to pray for rulers precisely because just laws help the promotion of the good news about Jesus.

8.3.3.                  The Wisdom Required for Just Judgment

The role of government is to contribute to the peace of society, which involves a positive obligation to maintain order and social justice, and a negative obligation of non-interference when the common good is not at stake.  Just as Romans 13 stresses the positive obligations incumbent upon government, so 1 Timothy 2:1-4 emphasizes the negative obligation.  By creating a social space in which people can live 'peaceful and quiet lives' in accordance with their private conscience, government can help to establish the conditions in which people can 'come to a knowledge of the truth' (1 Timothy 2:3).  This non-interference involves the recognition of a sphere of human freedom before God in which the public good is not immediately at stake."

It might seem obvious that human laws and legal systems ought to be, in some measure, a reflection of divine justice, and I have used that description myself in the past. Human laws are not, however, a straightforward reflection of divine justice.  Oliver O'Donovan argues rightly that humanity would not be able to stand God's final and absolute judgment.  We are not ready for it.  Human judgment has its function, precisely as a more limited and circumscribed form of judgment, applicable only to certain acts of public significance.  It is both a warning of the Final Judgment to come and a gracious provision of God's patience. 

O'Donovan argues that the fact that God has not yet rendered His final judgment on humanity places limits on the practice of human judgment in a number of respects. There are some judgments which God alone can make. There are some judgments for which the time has not yet come. There are some judgments, such as the punishment of the sinfulness which afflicts us all, where an attempt to render that eschatological judgment now would be catastrophic (Ways of Judgment, p.66). Crucially, human judgments cannot be redemptive in the way that Christ's judgment is.

Christians have a higher standard of justice by which to criticize human laws but the move from divine justice to human laws is not a straightforward one.  Key to O'Donovan's view of judgment is that while a human judge is incompetent to declare comprehensively what it is right to do, such a judge is obliged to determine when a wrong has occurred of such a nature that it demands public remedy.

According to O'Donovan, everything which government does has to be justified on the basis that it is addressing some wrong which would otherwise occur (O'Donovan calls this "the wrong principle").  This means that the scope of government can wax and wane over time as society's needs change.  For example, so long as privately owned banks can provide adequate credit there is no need for government to intervene, and it would be wrong for government to do so, but in times of emergency, it may be appropriate for governments to nationalise banks provided, not doing so, would lead to greater wrongs occurring.

O'Donovan counsels that "It is a workable justice, rather than an ultimate justice, for which we are to strive, whilst recognising fully that 'In life-situations our attempts at justice will be rough. … We deal in approximations, and the deeper we examine situations the more we despair of knowing what justice demands. … Justice is not to be measured by an absolute standard: in human dealing … it is a relative matter, a question of more or less." ('In Pursuit of a Christian View of War', p.17).

Laws must be realistic in what they set out to achieve.  As O'Donovan points out, "there are limits on what a community can be persuaded to accept, limits on what police can enforce, and that every society this side of Heaven tries to be content with controlling some evils that it cannot actually eradicate." ('The Christian and the Unborn Child', p.3).  Elsewhere he writes that "Law is like a dyke built to contain the stream of human aspirations and ambitions: if we want to contain the floodwaters, we must leave a channel just large enough for them to find their way to the sea." (Just War Revisited, p.91).

As Jesus Himself explained, the reality of sinful imperfection was recognised in the law of Moses itself, with its teaching on divorce, given because "your hearts were hard" (Matthew 19:1-12).  As Chris Wright acknowledges "[T]he experience of Old Testament Israel prepares us to allow for the fact that society is fallen.  Even God does so!  That is the point of Jesus' saying that while, from the beginning, God's creation purpose was lifelong marriage, nevertheless he allowed divorce 'for your hardness of heart' (Matthew 19:8, RSV).  If divorce could be tolerated within Israel as God's redeemed people, though not without criticism and the teaching of a higher standard, … we must agree to its being tolerated within secular society.  Not that it should pass without criticism and, more than that, positive working to uphold the highest, absolute standards and to enable people to approximate to them." (Living as the People of God, p.188).

However, while the force of the law is not apt to produce heartfelt obedience to God, it can stop people starving or being permanently excluded from a real stake in society.  If Christian morality cannot be enforced; the poor, the weak and the needy should nonetheless be protected from the worst excesses of unrestrained un-Christian immorality.  Although law cannot make people moral, it can enable and encourage them to behave in more moral ways and so protect others from the effects of their sins.  There is a real, but limited, extent to which this is possible.

9.      Conclusion: Know where you are in the story

In order to answer the question 'What does God want law to do?', we have to look at the Bible's big story, at the themes of creation, fall, redemptive process and hope for the new age.  In distinguishing each of these themes, we need, however, to remember that creation, preservation and redemption are all acts of the triune God and that "Creation, preservation and redemption are interwoven and interactive." (N.G. Wright, Disavowing Constantine, p.162).

There is something to encourage us in our work as lawyers in every stage of the Bible's big story about law and justice.  We can learn that law is part of the created order and was made to be good; we can be pleased to work with God restraining the worst effects of the Fall but we can do so without feeling the pressure of having to solve everything and put everything right.  We can seek to use laws to preserve order, to punish wrong and to commend what is good, knowing that one day we will have to give an account of our actions, and finally, we can look forward to that great day when all wrongs will be righted and all offences will be addressed.


If you want to discover more resources for thinking through these issues, please look at my website at www.theologyoflaw.org.

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